VIRSU, an emblematically Finnish word denoting a traditional shoe made of birch bark, is also an acronym combining Fi. VIRo ‘Estonian’ with SUomi ‘Finnish’. In the world of Finnic linguistics, VIRSU has been the name of a research project and conferences uniting those who explore the questions of Estonian and Finnish as foreign languages.
This cooperation began in Finnish-Estonian meetings that took place in Tartu and Tallinn in 1997, and it has gradually expanded. (More about the history of VIRSU.) VIRSU meetings, workshops and conferences have been organised regularly, either independently or in the framework of a larger conference, and both theoretical and applied-linguistic publications have appeared.
The need for skills in Finno-Ugric languages has multiplied, especially in trade, in increasing scientific and academic cooperation, and in travel, as much as for general educational purposes. True, this mainly concerns the three Finno-Ugric state languages (Estonian, Finnish, Hungarian). However, due to the increasing awareness of the linguistic human rights of minorities, the teaching of Finno-Ugric minority languages will also be of more and more interest in applied linguistics.
The third international VIRSU conference in Joensuu 19.–20.1.2007 suggested to extend the cooperation to all researchers of Fenno-Ugric languages as a second language. Since then, VIRSU has been attempting to extend its range to all Finno-Ugric languages. Suggestions for further steps in developing cooperation are welcome.
The aim of the VIRSU project is to compare the particular features involved in the acquisition and teaching of these languages and to analyse the language situation in countries in which Finno-Ugric languages are spoken. Most of the previous research has been concerned with the acquisition of Indo-European languages, and thus research of typologically different languages will either support or challenge earlier findings. The results of this research in Finno-Ugric languages will contribute an important new dimension and will be applicable in practical teaching situations and the design of teaching materials.